The Back Page by Matthew Schmitz
Donald Trump is a man of faith. It’s true that during his presidential campaign he has demeaned women, mocked the disabled, and praised the abortionists of Planned Parenthood; that his early exploits include repeated adulterous affairs, about which he boasts, and a failed attempt to evict a widow from her home; that, unlike King David, to whom his more shameless supporters compare him, he has never asked God for forgiveness. Trump is nonetheless a man of strong and very American faith. His career throws a light on the spirit of the age, as Lytton Strachey once said of Cardinal Manning. The light is not very flattering.
Trump was baptized and confirmed at the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, in New York City. His parents raised him in the austerities typical of devout low-church Protestants. As a result, he does not gamble, smoke, or imbibe—even when the stimulant is caffeine. “I’ve never had a cigarette. I’ve never had a glass of alcohol. I won’t even drink a cup of coffee,” he told Esquire last year. (It is hard to forget when noting Trump’s abstemious habits that Hitler and Mussolini neither smoke nor drank.)
In his late twenties, Trump began attending Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue. Founded in 1628 in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, Marble Collegiate is one of the few institutions that survives from the city’s founding. Peter Minuit, the governor of New Amsterdam, was the first church elder, and Peter Stuyvesant, the colony’s director general, led worshipers to service every Sunday. The high steeple of its current home, erected in 1854, rises two hundred feet above the pavement, a symbol of uprightness set in stone. Here Trump walked down the aisle after exchanging vows with Ivana and heard the sermons of Norman Vincent Peale, a man whose philosophy would become Trump’s own.
When Trump met him, Peale was already famous as the author of The Power of Positive Thinking , a book that would go on to sell some five million copies. Peale occupied a position at the center of the establishment, though this standing was endangered in 1960, when he joined a group of 150 Protestant pastors, including Billy Graham, that wanted to keep Kennedy out of the White House. The group issued a manifesto asking whether a Catholic could be trusted as president when Rome had shown such “determined efforts . . . to breach the wall of separation of church and state.” Peale led the public presentation of the document and faced an immediate backlash from Union Theological Seminary’s Reinhold Niebuhr and John Bennett, who accused him of “blind prejudice.” The embarrassed Peale apologized and from then on sought to distance his teaching from the harsh realities of politics.
Before Trump made his own foray into politics, he read Peale’s book and adopted its program of “positive thinking.” The two men began to trade public compliments. Peale, always generous in his assessments of human nature, said that Trump had a “profound streak of honest humility.” Trump, not exactly showing that humble streak, said that Peale “thought I was his greatest student of all time.” In a certain sense, Trump was right. Peale has had no more perfect disciple.
Peale distilled the optimism and self-sufficiency of the American character into a simple creed. The first article of his faith was a warm patriotism. He called the U.S. “the greatest country in the world” and addressed his writing to “everyday people of this land” who “are my own kind whom I know and love and believe in with great faith.” These were the people he met in masonic halls, resort hotels, and cruise-ship conference rooms. In them he sensed innate decency and ability. Any one of them could become efficient and successful—if only he would believe in himself, harnessing the power of positive thinking.
Peale promised his readers “constant energy” if they thought positively. Optimistic thoughts opened one up to a vital force coming directly from God. Negative thoughts, especially a tendency to dwell on one’s faults, could interfere with the divine charge. He warned those with active consciences that “the quantity of vital force required to give the personality relief from either guilt or fear” was so great that it left “only a fraction of energy” for going about one’s tasks. Productivity and cheeriness became for him the signs of eternal election. (In attacking Jeb Bush for being “low-energy,” Trump effectively accused him of having forfeited the Holy Ghost.)
For Peale, “attitudes are more important than facts.” The man who displays “a confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether.” The first fact that Peale’s positive thinking had to overcome was the fact of human frailty. Peale knew about the difficulties some encounter in alcohol, in troubled marriages, and in economic hardship, but he never could accept the inevitability of misfortune or that all must pay the wages of sin. Like one of Job’s comforters, he told the suffering that they simply needed to look on the bright side. Where the Bible urges man to search his heart and know his faults, Peale encourages him to “make a true estimate of your own ability, then raise it ten percent.” For Jeremiah the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, but for Peale its dark recesses are bathed in California sunshine.
Thus the necessity of repentance recedes. It is important to think positively, and a negative thought, such as Domine, non sum dignus, can be injurious to spiritual health. Yet the gloomy aspect of traditional Christian practice is also the wellspring of Christian compassion. At the moment a Christian asks for forgiveness, he must acknowledge his own weakness and look mercifully on the weakness of others. In the Our Father, the Christian asks that he be forgiven, just as he in turn forgives. From the holy terror that Peale called “fear thoughts” comes the light of Christian love.
At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements—his attacks on every vulnerable group—are made intelligible by this one. The self-sufficient faith Trump absorbed from Peale has no place for human weakness. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his fellow men.
Because Peale was a decent man of sincere if not quite orthodox Christian faith, he never drew out the harsh implications of his views. Trump feels no such restraint, and so has taken Peale’s teaching to its logical conclusion. . . .
Peale is now largely forgotten, and his bestseller languishes in used book stores. This is a shame, for it has led us to underestimate the influence and power of the self-sufficient faith that he promoted, and that he imparted to his greatest student. Peale meant to preach a gentle creed, one that made hellfire and terror into mere afterthoughts. In Trump it has curdled into pagan disdain. Both forms of this philosophy have captured the public imagination, and both stand at odds with the faith taught by Christ.
Christianity is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord. To those without reason for optimism, it holds up the cross as a sign of hope. To anyone who does not win at life, it promises that whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake shall find it. At its center stands a truth that we are prone to forget. There are people who cannot be made into winners, no matter how positive their thinking. They need something more paradoxical and cruciform. . .
Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.